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COVID-19 Risks Deepening Existing Disparities in Indian Educational Institutions

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Summary

SWAYAM and NPTEL are seen as the ideal platforms for online learning, but much of the content on these platforms run asynchronously, i. e. with pre-recorded videos that the students watch at their leisure. This process deprives the students of the benefit of live interactions and feedback from the teacher. Viewing of study material created for a general audience works only for self-learners. One needs to remember that not all students are equipped to be self-learners and most of them report that they benefit from a teacher.

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Each University has a role in nation building. I say this from the point of view of the two central universities I previously worked in, the University of Hyderabad (HCU) and Mizoram University (MZU), as well as my present institution, the Central University of Tamil Nadu (CUTN).

 

  • HCU has grown in academic stature across disciplines in less than fifty years while catering to the needs of many economically and socially underprivileged students.
  • MZU had recruited its first batch of permanent faculty in Physics in 2007; I was one of them. Most of our students then were first generation graduates, many being first generation literates. Today, it is heartening to see some of them as post-doctoral fellows in eminent institutes abroad and in India including TIFR and SINP. Some of our studentsare themselves teachers now, and they have introduced pedagogical concepts learnt at the university to their students preparing them for a bright future. Today MZU stands in the top 100 universities of the country.
  • CUTN was established in 2009 and has since catered to a majority of women students, many of whom are the first generation of female post-graduates from their families. I am sure that CUTN too will contribute significantly to all spheres of the society in due course of time.

 

Between the periods at MZU and CUTN, I have noticed a steady decline in infrastructural support to newer universities. Established universities are able to tide over annual financial deficits through their corpus funds, funds that newer universities lack. This translates to the latter being in a perpetual state of financial and infrastructural distress. The nominal funds allocated to faculty to attend seminars and workshops are inadequate to attend even one out of state event, which translates to the inability to form academic networks and collaborations. Furthermore, the annual funds allocated to these universities are not enough for self-sufficient research facilities such as X-ray diffraction, electron microscopy etc., in the same institute for research in materials science or of high-end computational facilities for research based on modelling and simulation. Faculty have to rely on common facilities at other institutes that charge a fee, and often rely on the goodwill of friends to tide over the associated difficulties. There are time-delays in obtaining the data, thus leading to fewer publications. This in turn reduces the ability of the individual faculty to get funded projects and the eligibility of the university for larger fund allocation in the next financial cycle, thus leading to a downward spiral of research and academic activities.

 

The COVID-19 lockdown happened in the midst of this already precarious situation.  With research scholars confined to their homes with inadequate internet facilities, research has come to a near halt. This is worse for experimental research, where access to laboratories is essential and the equipment is normally maintained by the scholars. Currently, we hope that there will be no damage to equipment due to our inability to physically access and maintain them and that we will be able to restart research when the lockdown lifts. Even a minor repair will cost us a lot.

 

Measures such as physical distancing and staggered workplaces have been suggested as methods to return to classroom teaching. This presupposes the existence of additional resources which is far from the ground reality. It would be near impossible to maintain physical distancing in classrooms when we have just enough furniture for all students and in laboratories where they are already sharing equipment.  Staggered theory and laboratory classes would mean more batches of students, thus requiring more faculty and more technical manpower for laboratories. This can be achieved only through policy changes in the number of sanctioned posts per department.

 

Lockdown due to COVID-19 necessitated online teaching for the rest of the semester and this seems to be the imminent solution for the coming year(s). Online instruction comes with its own problems. We now realize that there is a huge digital divide in the student body. Only a small number of our students have personal laptops and broadband internet connections while some students, especially those from rural areas, have neither the devices nor the connectivity. This makes long term online teaching an unimplementable strategy. When the students are at the university, the digital divide can be bridged through use of common facilities. Further, even if the students were to participate in online learning from home despite the digital divide, they may not have access to quiet and distraction free surroundings.

 

If the teaching has to continue fully online, strategies such as providing laptops and internet dongles to needy students can be thought of. Every university can also think of a central tele-conferencing facility for interactions of faculty with those students who do not have access to the internet. If the classes are to resume on campus, it may be necessary to re-frame the syllabus to allow for partial online teaching. In a mixed mode strategy, half the “contact” hours can be taught online,  the remaining being a staggered classroom teaching.

 

SWAYAM and NPTEL are seen as the ideal platforms for online learning, but much of the content on these platforms run asynchronously, i. e. with pre-recorded videos that the students watch at their leisure. This process deprives the students of the benefit of live interactions and feedback from the teacher. Viewing of study material created for a general audience works only for self-learners. One needs to remember that not all students are equipped to be self-learners and most of them report that they benefit from a teacher. The teaching material has to be tailored by the concerned faculty to ensure individual attention to their own students, for which they should be aware of the pedagogical difference of online teaching-learning from that in a classroom. A video recording of a lecture or uploading presentations does not sufficiently convey the material to the student. Issues specific to online teaching (such as working without facial cues from students and readability by text readers for the visually challenged, to give just two examples) also need to be addressed.

 

Then there are issues relating to examining students online. The composition of online exam questions is not always pedagogically sound. Multiple choice questions, which are regularly used with large student strengths, do not adequately test subject understanding. Also, not all universities have adequate common computer centers where proctored online exams can be conducted with suitable precautions. Since the credibility of examinations cannot be compromised, it is necessary to think of more creative solutions.

 

Making teaching material suitable for online platforms needs resources such as recording facilities, software and hardware – resources that are currently available only in few institutes. The faculty need the time to adapt to all these changes. Now would  be the ideal time to bring back the retired faculty members into the fold. Many of them have decades of invaluable experience, are still physically active and might be happy to contribute to the issue of teaching students during this crisis period. Their presence, either in person or through online interactive classes, will be comforting and beneficial to the students. It will give the faculty members the much-needed support and time to adapt to the changing scenario.

 

As at many universities across the world, the lockdown has left my students at CUTN anxious and stressed about the future. We have been able to allay their fears regarding course completion for this semester, but are unable to address the reality of lost opportunities related to jobs and higher education in India or abroad. If we are to reassure the younger generation that all hope is not lost for their future, it will be necessary to strengthen the academic system to its very last branches, not letting the pre-existing disparities grow in this crisis period.

 

V Madhurima is a Professor of Physics at Central University of Tamil Nadu, Thiruvarur. Views expressed are personal.

 

This article is part of a series called New Directions in Higher Education in India after COVID-19. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.

 

Update (25-05-2020): The year of establishment of CUTN was wrongly mentioned as 2012. This factual error has now been corrected.

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